Saints defense is filled with versatile defensive backs

Bob Rose

The New Orleans Saints have a rising defense full of young stars capable of taking over a game. The defense has a deep and talented front line and an athletic linebacker corps that allows them to create havoc around the line of scrimmage and in opposing backfields. New Orleans also has talent on the back-end, something that defensive coordinator Dennis Allen and secondary coach Aaron Glenn spoke about in interviews this week. One attribute that both Allen and Glenn focused on was the versatility of their defenders, especially in the secondary, an area that has fallen short of expectations in playoff losses over the last three years. Allen and Glenn were excited about the personnel in the secondary and hinted at deploying them in unique ways.

Dec 16, 2019; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore (23) defends a pass intended for Indianapolis Colts wide receiver T.Y. Hilton (13) in the fourth quarter at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Marshon Lattimore is one of the league's best cornerbacks. Capable of shadowing the league's best wideouts one on one, the 24-Yr old Lattimore is coming off the second Pro Bowl berth in his three seasons. The 11th overall pick of the 2017 draft has 8 career interceptions, 44 passes broken up, 5 fumbles forced, and 3 fumble recoveries along with 168 career tackles. Lattimore allowed just 50% completion percentage when targeted in 2019, giving up just 3 touchdown passes. His ability to shadow the opponent's top receiver gives the defense flexibility with their other coverages and allows Dennis Allen to be more aggressive with his blitz packages.

Jan 5, 2020; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; New Orleans Saints cornerback Janoris Jenkins (20) defends Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs (14) during the second quarter of a NFC Wild Card playoff football game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

While Allen has the option to line up Lattimore all over the field, that isn't always necessary because of the presence of Janoris Jenkins. The 31-Yr old Jenkins was signed off waivers by the Saints late last year, appearing in three games, including playoffs. Like Lattimore, Jenkins can take on any of the league's best wideouts in man coverage. The nine-year veteran is a gambler that has 23 career interceptions and has scored eight defensive touchdowns. He shut down star Vikings receiver Stefon Diggs in the playoffs and combines with Lattimore to give the Saints one of the NFL's best shutdown duo of cornerbacks.

Oct 6, 2019; New Orleans, LA, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Ronald Jones (27) is tackled by New Orleans Saints cornerback P.J. Williams (26) in the second half at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

The Saints re-signed 27-Yr old cornerback P.J. Williams to a one-year contract this offseason. Williams is a five-year veteran who gives the team depth and versatility throughout the secondary. He is a liability in man coverage but is a good open-field tackler and dangerous blitzer.  Williams is one of the team's best options in slot coverage and has a good play recognition off the ball. Those skills enabled him to shine when replacing the injured Marcus Williams at free safety for a few games last season, a position which fits his skill set.  Dennis Allen and Aaron Glenn have each hinted at using Williams more in that role in 2020.

Dec 22, 2019; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) is tackled by Philadelphia Eagles strong safety Malcolm Jenkins (27) during the fourth quarter at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

New Orleans also brought back veteran strong safety Malcolm Jenkins this offseason, reuniting him with the team that drafted him with the 14th overall selection in 2009. The 32-Yr old Jenkins has still played at a top level in his last six seasons with Philadelphia and will bring elite leadership ability to the young New Orleans secondary. He can also cover most of the league's better tight ends, has good read and react skills as a deep safety, and can be a dominant presence at the line of scrimmage.

Nov 28, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; New Orleans Saints defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (22) returns an interception as Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Christian Blake (13) pursues in the second half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

The addition of Jenkins will allow Dennis Allen to use the versatile skill set of second-year defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson all over the field. Gardner-Johnson had a fantastic rookie year after being a 4th round steal out of Florida. He had an interception and fumble recovery last year along with six tackles for loss and 7 quarterback pressures. The 5’11 210-Lb safety is the team's best coverage option in the slot and was able to nullify some of the better veteran receivers in the league as a rookie, but also has good reaction skills in deep coverage and excellent recognition at the line of scrimmage. Gardner-Johnson will have a more significant role for the Saints defensive plans in 2020, something that both Allen and Glenn alluded to in recent interviews.

Nov 28, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; New Orleans Saints free safety Marcus Williams (43) tackles Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley (18) after a catch during the second half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The ability of P.J. Williams, Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, and Malcolm Jenkins to be deployed all over the field allows free safety for Marcus Williams to focus on deep coverage and off-ball responsibilities his playmaking skills are best used.  With Lattimore and Jenkins able to lock onto the league's top receivers with little help, the Saints can deploy more aggressive defensive packages and more complex coverage schemes. Gardner-Johnson and P.J. Williams can handle slot responsibilities, at least until one of the team's young corners like former XFL star Deatrick Nichols can step up and earn a role there.

Sep 29, 2019; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints secondary Marcus Williams and Vonn Bell and Marshon Lattimore and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson break up a pass to Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Amari Cooper (19) during the fourth quarter at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The New Orleans secondary has stumbled in some crucial moments during postseason failures over the last three seasons, as has most of the team. Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen and secondary coach Aaron Glenn are confident in the players they have on the unit. They will use the versatile talent they have here in unique packages, but it will be up to the players to make the big plays in critical moments for the Saints to be victorious in their championship pursuit.